Old Testament books and passages are important when attempting to witness to Buddhists, especially those following traditional Asian Buddhism, according to a former missionary who helped plant churches in Japan.
Harold A. Netland, professor of Philosophy of Religion and Intercultural Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, spent nine years as a missionary educator in Japan.
On an episode of the Dallas Theological Seminary podcast The Table that was posted online last week, Netland explained that Buddhism does not have a “creator god” like Christianity.
“Classical Buddhism into the 19th century was unequivocal; there is no creator god. There could not be a creator god. If everything is impermanent and coming in and passing out of existence, the idea of an eternal creator god just doesn’t fit there,” noted Netland.
“So, the more modern notion is well, Buddhism isn’t really atheistic, it’s just agnostic. And this is a modern way of thinking. Classical Buddhism is very clear; there is no god.”
Netland later outlined how to engage in a conversation with a traditional Asian Buddhist, noting that one had to start at the beginning.
“Traditional Asian Buddhist, it takes a long time. You start a Bible study, Genesis 1, or pick a New Testament text. In the beginning God,” said Netland.
“You have to stop right there and talk. What do you mean by God? Who is God? And the Japanese pastors are very, very good. Very, patient. They just keep coming back to this. Until you really appreciate the idea of a creator god, none of the rest of this is going to make sense.”
The Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes, which emphasizes the meaninglessness of earthly pursuits, is a popular one among Japanese Buddhists, according to Netland.
“I have found certainly Japanese have an appreciation for the book of Ecclesiastes that many Americans don’t. We don’t know what to do with this book. They like it. The language is something they resonate with,” Netland explained.
“And of course in Ecclesiastes at pivotal points you have God. Remember your creator. And so that puts it in a totally different light. But there are points of contact and resonance there.”
Other Christian leaders, most notably North Point Community Church Senior Pastor Andy Stanley, have argued that the Old Testament is hindrance to evangelism, at least for churches in the United States of America.
In a controversial sermon from April, Stanley explained that while he believes that the Old Testament is "divinely inspired," it should not be "the go-to source regarding any behavior in the church."
"Peter, James, Paul elected to unhitch the Christian faith from their Jewish scriptures, and my friends, we must as well,” stated Stanley at the time.
“Jesus' new covenant, His covenant with the nations, His covenant with you, His covenant with us, can stand on its own two nail-scarred resurrection feet. It does not need propping up by the Jewish scriptures.”
Critics of Stanley's comments include Ray Ortlund, senior pastor of Immanuel Church in Nashville, Tennessee, who said in a speech at the Gospel Coalition's West Coast Conference in October that in his New Testament writings St. Paul “goes back to David, to Moses, to Abraham. He reveres the faith that came down to him even filtered through Jewish tradition.”
“Unlike some preachers today, Paul did not 'unhitch' the Christian faith from the Old Testament,” stated Ortlund.
“And for him personally, Christian conversion did not take his Jewishness away. It made Jesus the Lord over his Jewishness and over his conscience, both of which, he continues to honor.”